Rachel’s steps falter as she and Daniel cross Hester Street. It’s after midnight and the city appears evacuated. Galleries and window displays alive only hours ago are hidden behind varied patterns of metal grating. The opening of Daniel’s latest work ended in a restaurant that could barely contain the patrons, gallery staff, friends, and protégés, including his latest girlfriend. The attire was chic and the laughter restrained as they spilled through the glass doors between their long table and the bar.
“I didn’t want it to end,” Daniel says. But after weeks of producing work, the success feels deserved.
Rachel laughs. “Afraid it was all a dream?”
“Something like that.”
Rachel’s gotten ahead of him, so he sees the way her red plaid skirt rides up her thigh as she walks. He likes her quirky good looks. Like an unexpected great wine or undiscovered artist. He wants to ask about the skirt. Where she got it. It looks like something from her mother’s generation or maybe something coming back in vogue. Rachel’s clairvoyant when it comes to fashion, manifesting peculiar ensembles that later appear on magazine covers and ingenues. He once asked if a dress Rachel wore was her mother’s. She’d tucked her arms against her body, upped her pace, and never answered.
“Well, it was real,” Rachel says. She has to concentrate to walk straight.
Being a textile stylist rarely captures people’s imagination. They’re always more interested in Daniel. You and Daniel have been friends forever, they say, as if her status is special. No one believes that they can be close without having sex, especially his girlfriends. She and Daniel spent a night together—stupid-drunk and years younger—under the oil-based eyes of a nude portrait. Sometimes you sleep with people you shouldn’t, she’d thought as morning seeped through the loft’s windows. He brought her coffee from his makeshift kitchen. She needed to get to work. When she left, she wanted to call her mother, to ask her about love and would it ever be right in her life. But her mother wasn’t there. She hadn’t yet adjusted to never hearing her mother’s voice again. Now Daniel is Rachel’s closest friend. Others come and go.
“I don’t know what I’d do without you,” he says, though it isn’t what he wants to say. He hadn’t counted on Rachel’s lasting presence in his life when he first approached the small, peculiarly dressed, redheaded girl standing with her face only inches from his favorite student’s lithograph. Or that she’d be such a quick study of abstract ideas—that she could see the core of what drove an artist’s process and how to fix what wasn’t working in a painting without one second of art education. That she’d brush off this skill as nothing, a fact that both entranced and aggravated Daniel.
“You’d been at it years before I showed up.” Rachel manages to smile while watching one foot land in front of the other. Her father’d admonished her to walk toes-in. Her parents had been gone for ten years, but she was still conscious of how people’s feet splayed out. “You’d be fine without me.”
Daniel wraps an arm around her shoulders. She smells like herbs and olives. The stuff of beatnik poetry and independent film. I want to get inside your head, he thinks. To see what compels you. To see you cry in your parents’ vacant Park Avenue apartment. To see her naked again. Her armor off.
“I like whatshername,” Rachel says. “But, honestly, she’s the coldest fish you’ve caught.”
“Sometimes ice is fire.” His arm stays around her. “Besides, you never like my girlfriends.”
“It’s not easy to keep track of them.”
His newest had straight blond hair, like a sheet of spun silk.
Daniel’s laugh is loose and raspy, like the joke is real. Rachel laughs too.
“Jack Leavitt asked if we all—you, me, him, and Alison—could do dinner.”
“Her name’s Alison.” Rachel nods.
Leavitt is a curator who has taken an interest in Daniel’s work. Attractive but older. Tonight he stayed at Rachel’s side, occasionally touching her arm as they walked the show. She’s a magnate for older, successful, hyper-educated men.
Rachel stops obsessing over her toes and almost stumbles, like a child just learning to wear shoes.
“Like a date?” she says.
Daniel shrugs. “He asked is all.”
“What is he, sixty?”
“He’s quite the lothario—has a kid with a museum director somewhere in New England,” says Daniel. “He’s gallant. He’d take care of you.”
“What are you, my pimp?” Rachel snorts and is instantly embarrassed. She can’t think about dating a sixty-year-old curator when the buzz running across her brain feels so carefree.
“I’d gain an instant edge over you,” she says.
“You’d like that.” The idea of Rachel with Leavitt simultaneously appeals to and disgusts Daniel. He recalls Rachel sitting up in his bed that morning, how she held the sheets over her breasts and rubbed the sleep out of her hair. How he’d wished he could keep her there. But he couldn’t have this girl and all the others too. And he couldn’t give up the potential every woman brought him: the sensations, the undiscovered body, the unrealized muse. Inspiration always came from them, from seeing them, hearing them, smelling them, from how they reacted to him. Different women. “Playing along wouldn’t hurt.”
“There was another guy,” she says. The young man—maybe her age—walked the show alone and smiled whenever their eyes met. “Dark-haired, wild-looking. I haven’t seen him before.” At first she’d been uncomfortable, but something in his face said he wasn’t trolling, like so many others at art openings.
Daniel stops. His fingers fondle pocket lint. He’s never quite sure what he wants from Rachel.
Nothing, she would say.
But what he needs is so clear it burns: unanswered questions about how she feels, visions of her he doesn’t want captured by another artist. She’s as constant as the jars of brushes and tubes of paint that litter his workspace. It’s not that he thinks of her, she’s just there—no matter who else comes and goes, no matter what he does or doesn’t do. Rachel with the sheet held against her chest, her hair a curly mess. How she left abruptly and never seemed open to him again. How he’d gone along with being friends. How more beautiful women had never seemed as interesting since.
Rachel hasn’t noticed he’s stopped. Daniel analyzes how her boots hit her calves at the widest part. He wishes they were a little taller or a little shorter. But the skirt fits perfectly, like it’s made for her hips. Like mother, like daughter perhaps, but she won’t speak about her mother. Her death after the accident had been slow and painful. Rachel couldn’t bear to tell her that her father had already died.
“I didn’t see him,” he says. The lie is undetectable. No one missed Leavitt’s latest “find”—a sculptor from the Art Institute—with eyes that followed Rachel as if he’d come just for her. The taste of jealousy had been in Daniel’s mouth all night. An emotion he prided himself in being above.
Rachel notices he’s stopped.
Slick moisture diffuses the streetlight into blackness at the edges of their silhouettes, as if the night is pressing in.
“How could you miss him?” she says.
Her head spins, as if movement helped maintain equilibrium. In the morning she’d be hungover. She’s behind at work. Setting up the show has been distracting, like it was her own rather than one of many she’d set up with Daniel. But she loves the process. How they operate so in sync, like performance art.
Daniel’s breathing echoes in the narrow street. The sound rises in his head and pounds at his groin. He walks to her, but keeps a slight distance. Like two magnets turned upside down. It’s not enough, the way she is with him. As if she doesn’t need him. Or even might be too good for him. She should come home with him. He thinks he’s said it, but he hasn’t. “What do you think?”
“What?” she says.
“I asked, what do you think?”
He can smell her, but she feels lost to him already. The void is dark and wide. He tastes the memory of their sex—like earth and salt. He doesn’t want Leavitt or anyone else to get near her.
She’s fixated on a streetlight, as if preparing for it to brighten or go out entirely. The skirt is perfect. From the side, the muscles of her thighs run in strands to her knees.
“Think about what?” she says.
The streets are empty, like the moment before a storm, when the air is smooth as glass.
Why can’t she sense me? he thinks.
“Where the hell is…?” Rachel says, checking her watch.
The compunction is strong. The magnets reverse. He falls against her, pushing her into a wall.
She stumbles and tries to help him stand. He’s heavier than he looks.
His fingers on her breast.
“What the hell?” she says, pushing back.
He burrows against her neck. Her hair tangles in his mouth. Like soil and sea air. He presses her into the wall. He imagines sending them both into a room on the other side.
Rachel smells the clove cigarettes of wannabe artists coming from his jacket.
Daniel’s lips are wet against her neck, clammy and viral. His hot breath catches in his throat.
“I know you love me.” He speaks against her skin, saying words he wants to believe. “You must.” The legs, the skirt, the boots, her scent, the pressure of Leavitt, the relief of success. Daniel inhales her, pushing his nose down the length of her neck, opening his lips, sinking his teeth into the crest of her shoulder.
“Daniel,” she’s almost screaming. The force of him and the wine in her blood makes her reactions drag. She feels him tug her shirt up. His knee wedges between her legs, forcing the hem of the skirt onto her hips. Her back slides against brick, her feet leave the pavement. She keeps thinking he will stop. It’s a joke. A mistake. He’ll let go. Apologize. Laugh. Underneath, she feels panic. Perhaps fear.
He has never felt such urgency. Everything is in his way, her jacket, her sweater, the lace bra he imagines she bought for him. He feels the skin of her bare waist, from under the skirt, her thigh. The night has made her skin cool. Her hair snags on the wall. An earring clinks through a sidewalk grate. She turns to avoid his open mouth. Her cheek drags against coarse brick. His eyes are open.
“Forget him.” Daniel spits her hair from his lips.
“Who?” The wall against her surreal. This moment a fluke in a long night.
“For us.” He wants her to swallow him fully. Or him her. Nothing ever seemed more necessary.
“No.” Her fists slide off his leather jacket. His body’s unyielding. “Daniel, stop it.”
He tastes salt and something else, something feral. The urgency inside him has taken over. The places where their bodies touch are warm. He pins her wrists, jams his mouth against hers. Her teeth hard beneath her lip. She tastes blood. The brick scars her suede jacket. The hand under her skirt yanks at her underwear. She digs her fingers into his jacket and shoves with all her strength. He stumbles back, releasing her. As he tries to gain balance, she struggles to her feet, pulling her clothes in place.
“What the hell’s wrong with you?”
“Oh, cut the shit, Rachel.” He bends with his hands on his knees. “What have we been doing all these years?”
“What are you talking about?” Is it fear? Or disgust? She yanks her jacket onto her shoulders.
Daniel shakes his head and moves toward her.
Women are unpredictable. Provocative. He admires the way her clothes have become rumpled. She looks almost breakable. He reaches out to her. “Rach.”
The gap between them is dense, the air suddenly unfamiliar. Where the fuck is everyone? she thinks. The question races through her mind. At the end of the block, a cab turns onto the street heading away from them. Its light is on. Daniel sees it and smiles. She runs after it. “Taxi!”
Daniel starts to jog, feels the primitive sport of pursuit, blood, and adrenaline pump together like certainty.
She catches up with the cab.
He’s right behind her. He grabs her arms.
“Oh, come on,” he says.
She reaches one arm around. Her hand makes a feeble splat against the window. Caribbean music plays inside. The cab moves on.
She sprints after it, as if she could run until Daniel can’t see her.
“You’re not fooling anyone,” he calls after her.
She thinks about the cabdriver seeing this disheveled thirty-something woman running from a handsome forty-something man. A lover’s quarrel.
A metallic taste grows in the back of her mouth. She recalls a moment she was laughing with Alison and how Alison placed her pale hand on Daniel’s arm. Her nails evenly lacquered with generic pink.
A few yards away, exhaust billows from the cab’s tailpipe. It starts through the intersection. Rachel lunges to bang her fist against its window. The cab lurches to a halt. She breaks two fingernails wrenching the door open.
“Shit,” she says and plunges into the back. She reaches to pull the door closed.
“Get out.” Daniel holds the door as he leans in. He’s smiling. It’s funny, what they’re doing, embarrassing even. He crawls toward her on the seat. The driver has turned down the music. His awareness annoys Daniel. “Come on, Rach. Get out of the cab.”
The driver turns.
“Sir. Please.” His voice is accented, parental. His eyes like golf balls. He’d be an amazing subject. Daniel wants to say, I’ll paint you.
The driver stares. His expression flat, silent. The music sounds as if it comes from the street. Rachel hears her own breathing. The seat looks new. The floor is spotless. She might be the first person inside.
Daniel backs away, slams the door, and straightens his jacket. His smile says something has changed. Like maybe now he hates her. Rachel’s heart pounds into her stomach. She gives the driver her address and peers through the window.
Daniel stands alone in the street. The knees of his jeans are wet.
The cab speeds past city blocks. The driver turns up the music. The incident with Daniel instantly seems far away. She shouldn’t have had that last glass of wine. She feels stupid and exposed. Like a child. Like when she heard about her parents. Sitting on the bed in her dorm with her roommate, dropping chocolate chips into a jar of peanut butter, and eating it with spoons. The dorm supervisor standing in the door. Her face like marble. Rachel giggled at the sight of her.
The cleanliness of the cab makes Rachel uneasy, as if she’s staining it. The driver glances through the rearview mirror. They’ve crossed the Brooklyn Bridge. He’s taken a different route, made too many turns. She’s lost track. They pass empty streets, vacant lots. People moving alone in the darkness.
The driver is enormous. Larger than anyone she’s ever seen. His body fills over half the seat. His skin is as black as the night that surrounds them. With eyes like eggs sitting above his cheekbones. No family pictures adorn his visor, no statue of Jesus, no air freshener on the dash.
She presses into the seat. Between streetlights, she can only see his profile and the yellow glow of his license. The photograph of a face that fills the frame, punctuated with round, white eyes.
RAFAEL GARNIER, ML5PX4693.
Each turn produces another tug of disorientation.
He glances at her again through the mirror. She cannot read him. She stares at the door handle, fondles the metal lever. She focuses outside.
RAFAEL GARNIER, ML5PX4693.
In case she’s found alive: ML5PX4693.
She overreacted. Daniel was just being Daniel. She’s foolish, apt to panic, idiosyncratic, dependent. She’s the girl who lost her parents. The orphan. Daniel feels sorry for her. He always has. But her clothes are ruined, the scratches on her face sting, her body is sore.
The path of the taxi breaks through the desolate tangle of abandoned blocks to familiar streets. The driver pulls up to her building. The fare says twenty-three dollars. He turns off the meter. Those colossal eyes meet hers, then move to the building. He says, “Your home.”
Rachel pulls out thirty dollars. The driver puts up his hand.
She shoves the money at him. “I don’t need a savior,” she says as she slides out the door. She can feel the scrapes and bruises.
“No,” he says. The words are thick on his tough. “You need better friends.” He stares through the window and nods, urging her toward the front door.
The three-story row house never looked so much like home, and Rachel cannot get into it quickly enough, yet fumbles for the keys, with the lock and the doorknob while the cab idles a few yards away. In the gap of the closing door, she sees the cab disappear around the corner.
Her feet are on the stairs, running up two flights. Then she’s inside. She stands with her back against the door. Her heart beats in her ears. Her breath in her throat. The rooms are empty. City lights are visible beyond the rain-spotted windowpanes. She gropes for the light and feels the throb of a ripped fingernail. In the hall mirror, she sees her cut lip, blood smeared on her cheek.
Daniel stands in the work area of his studio. He cannot sleep. He’s in the middle of a series of studies in color, texture, and mood, but he feels an urge to do something different. He hasn’t had the urge to paint Rachel before tonight. She’s trendy, too much of now—as if she carries an expiration date. But the canvas cries out for her. He touches brush to canvas, then stops. He tries again, stops again, repeating the action almost a dozen times. He’s painted hundreds of women; hesitation is not part of the process. He puts down the brush, divides the canvas with pencil lines, charts out her form, her face, her hair, but the proportions aren’t right. He tries again with a bolder line. He paints over the canvas with blue. Layers in green. Blue again. He discards the canvas for another. He defaults to one of his best-selling themes—windows with views into private situations. Inside the frame, he shapes a figure wearing a plaid skirt and boots.
“Christ,” he says aloud and coats the figure with gray, dappling in abstract spots of what could be raindrops.
Rachel should be home. She doesn’t call when she gets home. He doesn’t usually worry about her. But the phone seems to glow with expectation.
Ringing shatters the stillness. Rachel hesitates, then reaches and yanks the cord from the wall before it connects to her answering machine. The living room’s white walls, wood floors, and canvas furniture frame the artwork hanging everywhere. Daniel’s first present, “Untitled,” a 5×5 oil in varying shades of textured red, is the room’s centerpiece. One has to get close to see the words that cover it from corner to corner written in differing shades of red. The text is nonsense: FOLD, PHORNICATE, FORSOOK, DILETTANTE, DORSAL, DOMESTIC, HOUSEWIFE, HOWITZER, HONEST… The painting’s cocked slightly to the right. She kicks off her shoes and puts one knee on the couch as she leans to straighten it.
On another wall several of Daniel’s smaller paintings hang like medallions. The third wall’s reserved for his protégés, most of whose work looks similar, but not as refined. Altogether Rachel has thirty-two paintings. The red “Untitled” is more valuable than the others combined. The fourth wall’s floor-to-ceiling windows reveal a wet night. Across the street a couple watches a hazy blue TV screen from their bed.
Her knee leaves a mark on the sofa. She drops her clothes on the living room floor. Her injuries pulsate. The hot water feels good, even as it stings her skin. When she gets out, she dons a robe and wraps her hair in a towel. In the mirror the scrapes on her face shine red. Her upper lip is puffy. She wraps Band-Aids around broken fingernails.
She walks through the apartment. Her workroom is narrow with a window at the end. Shadows of raindrops splatter across one wall. On the table cans hold pencils, pens, and markers. She reaches into one, removes a black broad-tipped marker, and slips it into her pocket. She gets a plastic bag from the kitchen. She picks up her clothes and dumps them into it. Ties it closed. She washes her hands and moves to the living room. She steps on the couch with both feet. She uncaps the marker. The scent is sharp and fresh. She begins to write, covering the red letters on the canvas, carefully forming new words: PAIN, PASSIVE, PANDER, HORROR, HABIT, HAVOC, LOVE, LIFE, LOSS and so on.
© 2014 Ree Davis